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Michael Kaiser Headshot

The New Model, Part 2

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The constant drumbeat for new models for arts organizations is deafening. But none of the experts calling for the creation of new models is being very specific about what these new models should be or even what specific problems they are meant to address. Perhaps the problems currently seem so overwhelming that the only possible answer is to scrap our current arts system and start over again.

Many are suggesting, for example, that board structures be eliminated in favor of other models of governance. Since my arts management career began in 1985 countless people have tried to define new governance structures with little, if any, success. In fact, when boards are managed well, they are incredibly productive and supportive. American boards are the envy of arts organizations around the world because so many of them are so actively engaged and so generous and so passionate. We have too few well-managed boards, I admit, but that does not argue against the model but rather against the way the model is implemented. We must work hard, no doubt, to teach our arts managers and our board members to make better decisions, create more interesting seasons, reach out more aggressively to new audiences and donor prospects.

But that does not mean there is anything wrong with current structures. It only means that there is a great deal wrong with the way these structures have been managed. Too many arts organizations have been unsuccessful finding new donors, attracting new board members, building new audiences. They have made enemies of their artists by blaming them for rising costs. They are producing safer art rather than producing more exciting art.

Yes, the world is changing -- it has always been changing. Tastes change, needs change. We must adapt to new technologies, new art forms, new ways of communicating. We face a plethora of new forms of entertainment that compete mightily, and at far lower costs, than in the past. And this will have implications. The number of full-time orchestras is bound to diminish for example, the opportunity for exciting new projects influenced by new technology is going to increase, the way we reach audiences will undoubtedly be different, and the way we educate children is going to evolve. I fully expect the world of the arts to look different in 20 years. I want it to look different, to grow, to evolve.

But that does not mean that we have to discard an entire way of working, losing the tremendous advantages enjoyed by successful arts organizations. I believe firmly that well-run arts organizations that appreciate how the world is changing, and react accordingly, that engage board members, that excite audiences, that create important work, that grow and change with the times, will survive and thrive for decades to come.

I know many people will say I am old-fashioned.

Some will say I am hopelessly attached to a dying model.

I believe I am hopelessly attached to a classic model.

Only time will tell.